By Caroline Lee
The last three weeks had been giddying. There’d been her usual classes at the gym, and finishing up this second-to-the-last semester of veterinary school, sure. That was nothing new. But in between, in those glorious few free hours each week, she got to see…him.
Jess’s relationship with Java had progressed so well that the chocolate lab was living with him full-time, now. Which meant that she did her training visits right next door, in his house. Every time she went over, she was nervous and excited, and made a complete fool of herself. There was the time that she tripped on his doorstep and would’ve busted her head open if he hadn’t caught her. Then the time that she tried to hand him a leash when he was already holding the food bowl, completely forgetting that he only had the one arm. And of course, all of the time she spent admiring the really cool stuff his prosthesis could do, no matter how many times his dark brows drew in disappointedly when he caught her staring.
She should be too embarrassed to show her face over there again. She should find it too awkward to peek through her living room curtains at him, when he walked Java in the evenings. She should definitely not be fantasizing about him, wondering what it’d feel like to have his chest pressed against hers and taste those hard lips and—
Lindsey bit her lip, stirring the spaghetti sauce. There is absolutely no need to be thinking those thoughts, young lady. Her mother’s voice, and her father’s teasing, sounded loud in her brain. She’d heard them both often enough, the good Lord knew, in between her sisters’ joking about her distraction at their weekly family dinner.
But she couldn’t help it; she was distracted, and totally obsessed with her hot neighbor. The problem was, that Jess and Java worked so well together, there wasn’t much left for her to do. So she’d decided to swallow down her embarrassment and take a step. Instead of working at his house this evening, she’d invited them both over here, to her house. She’d claimed that Java needed a chance to socialize with Shelby, but she was hoping that he’d stay for the spaghetti dinner she’d cooked up too. And the wine. And the brownies. And maybe some more wine and Netflix, after?
Whoops, the sauce was dripping on the counter. Laughing at herself, Lindsey set the spoon back down and wiped up the mess, hurrying through the last few steps of prep before the 6:30 pm start time.
By 6:33, he still wasn’t there, and Lindsey was halfway through her first consolation glass of wine, sure that he wasn’t arriving. By 6:35, she considered throwing out all of the spaghetti and eating the pan of brownies in front of Gilmore Girls episodes.
So when the doorbell rang at 6:37, she darn near tripped over her freshly painted red toenails to get to it. Setting down the wine, she called to Shelby, clipped the leash onto her collar, and took a few steadying breaths. This was it. He was here. Did she look okay? Suitably casual and oh-I-just-threw-this-on but also really sexy? Lindsey squeezed her eyes shut, said a silent prayer that she wasn’t going to do or say anything stupider than usual, and threw the door open.
In the fading light, he looked just as scrumptious as he had for the last weeks. Except this time, there was a little smile under his stubble, and his lovely eyes weren’t as hooded as they’d been during that first official meeting. “Hi.”
Java’s leash was clenched in his fake hand—is that what she was supposed to call it? A fake hand? She had no idea, but it was one of a million questions she wanted to ask—so he was able to give her a little wave with his right fingers. “Hi.”
A good start. Unfortunately at that moment, Java smelled Shelby, gave a little wuff of excitement, and barreled through the door, pulling Jess past Lindsey. Shelby, however, was just as clumsy as her momma, because the mutt darted for the door, and Java followed, and in less than a heartbeat both humans were wrapped around and pulled together by the dog leashes.
It was a stunning feeling, to have his chest pressed against hers like this, and Lindsey resisted the urge to take a really deep breath. His prosthetic arm was trapped between their stomachs, and hers was around her back where she was still holding Shelby’s leash, but at that moment, it didn’t matter.
He smelled like a man should. He looked like a man should, all cut angles and harsh lines and firm muscles. He felt like a man should, and despite the supreme awkwardness of being wrapped up by two dogs, Lindsey wouldn’t have missed this for the world.
But a full minute of silence demanded her attention. “Sorry.” She tried for a flippant smile, but was afraid she looked love-sick instead. “I can be kinda a dork sometimes.”
A dork? She managed not to groan. Well, if you weren’t before, you are now, dork. He wasn’t the kind to make jokes. He wasn’t the kind to grin at her silliness. He wasn’t the kind—
She sucked in a breath—she could actually taste him, they were so close—when his fingers brushed against her cheek. And then he smiled. Really smiled, like he had when he’d met Java. “Well, I think you’re pretty adorkable.”
He’d made a joke? Or was he teasing her? Or did he—wait. He thought she was adorable? And then she stopped thinking altogether, because Jess was leaning closer.
By Kris Calvert
Adorkable? Jess had no idea what was wrong with him. He wasn’t the kind of guy who tried to impress women with cute pick up lines. Frankly, before he’d lost his hand and his confidence, there’d never been a need for them. He’d always beamed with confidence—the kind of light emitted by men who weren’t afraid of anything on the outside, including a beautiful woman. But since he’d been home, his confidence had been replaced with anger and a cockiness that only reared its ugly head when he felt pitied. But Lindsey had shown him she didn’t pity him. She treated him like the man he wanted to be again, and he found himself in new and dangerous territory—spending time with a woman who made him feel whole. A woman who could destroy him all over again if he allowed her into his new and closely guarded life and heart.
“Did you just call me adorkable?”
“What? No.” Jess fumbled the words, stepping out of the tangled web of dog leashes and away from the scene. He needed to catch his breath. A breath that wasn’t filled with the vanilla scent wafting from her red locks.
Lindsey dropped her chin, hiding the blush on her cheeks. “Oh. Sorry.”
“You’re the dog trainer. Can’t you do something about these two?” Jess did his best not to look Lindsey in the face. If he caught her glace just once, he didn’t know if he could stay away from her.
The weeks of pretending he didn’t care for the beautiful redhead, beyond Java’s training, were wearing thin on his stubborn constitution. More importantly, she was the first woman he’d even thought of in a sexual way since coming home. Countless nights he’d pulled a self-imposed sentry duty, watching through the blinds for a glimpse of Lindsey in her Princess Leia shirt before getting pissed at himself for lurking. He was better than that, and he knew it. Still, he couldn’t help himself. He was drawn to her like a fly to sweet honey.
“Java is in your charge, Jess. Why don’t you control her?”
All Jess could think was, I can barely control myself around you. How can I be expected to control the damn dog?
Lindsey went to the floor, solving the leash puzzle that quickly unraveled in her hands, as Java left Shelby yapping in Lindsey’s arms only to sit at Jess’ feet without command.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” Jess said, the words giving his now obedient mutt’s ears a loving twist. “I’m not ready for…”
Lindsey walked the four steps it took to meet Jess head on and stared at him without pretense. “You’re not ready? Or the dog’s not ready?”
Jess pulled the vanilla-filled air into his lungs, exhaling in a slow, deliberate breath. He was trying to calm his nerves, but mostly he was weighing his options. “Look, I’ve done my best from the moment I met you not to…”
Lindsey moved a step closer. “Not to what?”
Jess hung his hand on his hip, shifting his weight in his well fitting jeans, and looked around the room like a man who’d accidentally stumbled into the feminine hygiene aisle at the grocery store. He was lost, filled with panic, and looking for a way out.
“Why can’t you just acknowledge what we’ve both known since the night I stepped foot on your front porch in nothing but a Star Wars t-shirt?”
Jess’ eyes uncontrollably darted back to Lindsey.
“What? You think just because I was embarrassed when I noticed your arm that I didn’t see you looking? It’s true. I was checking you out. But you were checking me out too and have been every day since that night. At least I have the balls to admit it. Listen Jess, you want to act like there’s something wrong with you, but the only thing wrong with you is that you think there’s something wrong with you.” Lindsey’s voice reached a high pitch as she rammed her point home. “And there isn’t. You might think you’re not a whole person—a whole man, but I’ve seen your arm. It doesn’t scare me, Jess. It doesn’t,” she repeated. “Because even though you left part of your body on the battlefield, your soul is intact. And that’s the most beautiful part about you.”
Jess took a deep breath. “So, you weren’t wearing panties that night?”
“Out of all of that,” she said, waving her arm in a complete circle, “the only thing you heard was no panties?”
“I’m a man who hasn’t been with a woman in a really long time. I couldn’t help but hearno panties. So…really? No panties?”
Lindsey dropped her shoulders and took another step forward. “I never wear panties,” she whispered.
“Fuck it,” Jess muttered. “I can’t do this.”
Taking the nape of her long neck into his strong hand, Jess pulled Lindsey into his body, pressing his forehead into hers. Swallowing hard, he stroked the back of her head, gripping her long red hair in his capable fist. Resisting his urge to back her into the couch and kiss her—among other things—into tomorrow, he held his ground and made his confession. “I’m not very good at this…anymore.”
Lindsey blinked deliberately and without another thought, dropped her arm to her side, grasping his new hand in hers.
“Don’t.” It was all Jess could think to say. No one outside of his physical therapist had ever touched his prosthetic hand.
Bringing it to rest on the waistband of her tight jeans, she left him there, placing both of her hands on his rugged face. “Don’t say don’t to me.” She whispered the words and shook her head.
“Fine,” Jess replied, feeling his newfound confidence and neglected manhood growing by leaps and bounds. “How do you feel about, yes?”
“Depends on the question.”
Running his tongue across his dry lips, Jess closed his eyes and made the first real decision with consequences since coming off the battlefield.
“May I kiss you? I need to ask because once I start, I’m not stopping.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“Is that a yes?”